Chapter 1

Section 1: Seeing the Problem.


“Look into nature, and then you will understand it better.”
Albert Einstein

“Perhaps what we mainly need is some subtle change in perspective — something that we all have missed…”

Roger Penrose

Vermilion cliffs. First light on Thanksgiving Day.

Morning dew dripped from the scarce blades of grass, gently filling the air with the nostalgic aroma of wet earth. In slow motion the atmosphere danced about us, wafting the pungent fragrance of nearby sagebrush to our nostrils. The sky reluctantly gave up the last of its stars, but it would take another three hours for the Sun to complete its climb over the towering rocks that surrounded us. Our tents were sprawled within a small field, one that could claim no more than an inch of topsoil. In this thin blanket small ants busied themselves waging war. Above, two white butterflies erratically drifted through invisible eddies. Crouching down on the ground I saw tiny yellow dots resolve into the four-petaled flowers of the Violet Sagebrush, no more than one centimeter in diameter. The coolness of the night was beginning to fade. There was no time to waste.

The towering rocks ripped the skyline into a jagged curiosity rendering us unnoticed in their formidable shadows. Our excitement built, as we collapsed our tents and carefully balanced the sixty pounds of supplies that filled each of our backpacks. After strapping on our gear we followed a small sandy footpath. Within minutes it led us to a crevasse — a gateway that would begin our journey. Its proportions betrayed the grandeur it protected, but our hearts quickened with the knowledge that this four-foot wide threshold guarded a forty-mile maze of twisting rock. Inside, a magical glimpse of Nature awaited us. We paused for a moment and listened to the faint whispers coming from the mouth of our trail. Then, with wide eyes, the six of us entered the world’s longest slot canyon.

Our bulky packs had transformed us into a single file line of clumsy giants, barely able to squeeze through the rock walls. Petrified swirls of orange and red jutted inward and then outward, occasionally wedging our packs so tightly that we could give our weight to the canyon walls and dangle our feet below. The trail beneath us was sandy and cool to the touch. The echoes of our footsteps became malleable, changing their tone and cadence with every twist and turn. Each section molded the timbre and attenuation of our movements in its own way. Desert varnish dripped down the sandstone canvas, covering it with oozing streaks of black, a gift from the bacteria high above who spent their lives basking in the sunlight of the canyon’s rim waiting for the next regenerating rainstorm. Ancient stories of great hunts and perilous dangers were highlighted on the walls in the form of petroglyphs. Foretelling. Warning. This place was a forgotten rite of passage, a portal into eons long past, a gateway to another set of rules.

Here everything was serene. Every step was riddled with an unfamiliar blend of sensation. It felt like we were inside Nature’s hourglass. A steady flow of sand trickled down from the sliver of sky above. Every sound twisted and turned before fading into the background choir of echoes. And at any moment everything could be turned upside down.

As the path descended, the walls climbed higher and higher and the world we knew disappeared. There was no wind, but we could feel the air resisting our intrusion. There was no direct sunlight, yet we were surrounded by brilliant patterns of orange and red. Step after step the walls continued to climb. Overhead we spotted large decaying trees that were forcibly wedged sideways between the rock walls. They were inescapable omens, not-so-subtle reminders of the flash floods that routinely carved this beauty. They testified of the violent and unpredictable power that etched this place and the towering wall of water that could be upon us at any moment.

This was a landscape in eternal flux. Each footprint was a first, every vista pristine. The rocks smelled of childhood memories mixed with dreams of exploring Mars. The promise of piercing the veil of Nature’s deepest secrets hung pregnant in the air, waiting for us to round the next bend.

Shadows danced throughout the day, resisting the sun’s attempt to glimpse the path below us. The deepest scars kept the complexity of this realm hidden from the prying orb above. The more we descended, the more time betrayed us. Before we knew it the cloudless filament of blue above faded and stars began to reclaim the strip of sky. We lighted our path with headlamps and pressed forward. When we came upon a small sand bar we finally stopped and made camp. Then, as a little surprise for the two of us that were Americans, our self-appointed leader, who was also the field guide for our dinosaur expeditions, began to cook prepackaged turkey and instant potatoes for a celebratory Thanksgiving dinner.

The one-pound stove performed perfectly, but it was defenseless against the constant percolating sand from the world above. Our cook was convinced that trying to avoid its inevitable taunting was an unnecessary inconvenience. Although his pot had a lid, he didn’t bother using it. He said that a half pound of dirt would help fill us up and that we wouldn’t even notice its presence if we chewed without letting our teeth touch — a trick he learned in Madagascar. Apparently the technique required some practice to perfect.

As we woke, the morning air had such a bite to it that we might as well have been on Mars. The only immediate sign that we were still on Earth was a single patch of sagebrush, which was reluctantly doubling as a makeshift clothesline. We had draped our socks over the bush late the previous night hoping to air them out. It didn’t work quite as we had hoped. All of our socks were now frozen and shaped like Dr. Seuss pretzels. Mia, the youngest in our group and an outdoor adventure writer, grabbed her socks and tapped them against a rock to flex some of the ice out. The collision sounded like the tapping of a metal axe. It was funny until we realized that Mr. Sandy Potatoes wasn’t likely to let some frozen socks get us behind schedule. At this thought we scrambled in vain to thaw them out.

After we devoured some prepackaged food we began familiarizing ourselves with the unique screams that people make when they try to wedge their feet into socks reinforced by small, sharp threads of ice. That was all the encouragement we needed to get moving.

The canyon had widened to about fifty feet from wall to wall. A small stream braided its way through the trail, filling the air with soothing echoes of gurgling water. Overhead, raven puppet masters squawked with laughter at the earthlings trapped in their maze below.

The turns were more rounded now, the straight-aways longer. The open spaces made us feel even smaller. We were like tiny ants making our way between two unabridged dictionaries spaced just a couple of fingers apart. The braids of water grew more and more tightly woven, concentrating in the middle of our trail. The soft dry sand slowly became hard packed and damp. Everything started to wake. All around us we could feel a deep vibration. The air was filling with life, moving just enough to rustle the hair on the back of our necks. As we walked, the vibration became audible as a faint rumbling sound. With each step it grew louder and the rustling air developed into a breeze. It quickly became clear that we were approaching the source of all this commotion.

After rounding one more bend, we found ourselves standing before a long corridor of towering rock that was convincingly auditioning for the next Indiana Jones movie. In the far off distance our trail was truncated by another wall of rock. Pressing on, our legs began to thaw and the details of the constriction slowly began to resolve. The canyon suddenly merged into a major artery (only twenty feet wide at this point). Here the trail disappeared under a foot and a half of icy water whose cresting echoes resonated throughout the rock corridors for miles. Stepping into the frigid currents, I was overwhelmed with the sense that I had just entered a realm that was completely unaware of any standards or imposed conformities.

Turning right at the junction we followed the flowing water. I felt completely out of place in this strange underworld lair. Water was swirling around my numbed legs, reverberating as it buffeted against the rocks ahead. Echoes were growing louder and louder, filling in the melodic treble of Nature’s most recondite song. This masterpiece was far more vibrant than anything I had imagined. The ground was water, the sky was rock, and everything came together like a bizarre surrealistic painting in progress. It was unfamiliar and mysterious.

By lunchtime we reached a semi-dry sand bar featuring a rock-sculpted bench. A jet of cold clean water, as thick as a stream from a garden hose, shot out of the canyon wall and arched over the two weathered seats. I removed my pack, sat down, and tried to take it all in.

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle.”

Albert Einstein [1]

This was my first experience of hiking through a slot canyon. I had never before seen Nature in this way. It was so different from what I had expected that I had difficulty imaging how I would explain this alien world when I got home. I wondered how I could accurately depict the full beauty of this secret realm to someone who has no context by which to ground that description. This question led me to more questions.

Is it possible to reveal the beauty of Nature without translating that beauty into the terms of human senses? Is it possible to convey what Nature looks like without constructing a picture? After I pondered these questions, I realized that in order for us to wrap our intuition around the natural realm we must find a way to relate that realm to our senses. Literally, if we want to know what Nature looks like then we have to construct a picture. As Steven Strogatz eloquently puts it, “without direct visualization we are dynamically blind.” (Strogatz, “The Next Fifty Years,’ p. 123.)

To explore this point suppose that I took a digital picture of what we dubbed ‘The Fountain of Buckskin Gulch,’ and then presented the digital information of that picture, the raw sequence of ones and zeros, to someone. Would that untranslated information help them see the fountain? This is more than just a question of lexicon, semantics, or syntax – it is a matter of connection. In other words, if I tried to present a facet of Nature’s beauty to someone without translating that information into a display that can be directly experienced by at least one of the senses, then how could I ever expect the recipient of that information to fully comprehend that beauty?

Einstein addressed this issue more poetically when he said, “Knowledge exists in two forms — lifeless, stored in books, and alive in the consciousness of men. The second form…is the essential one.” We can only obtain this second form when we extend the reach of our intuition into the depths of Nature’s secrets. But in order to do this we need a conceptual portal that is capable of unveiling a richer map.

This realization highlights a fundamental problem in the approach taken by modern physics. For the past several decades, theorists and mathematicians have been working on constructing a framework of Nature that is capable of mathematically combining the descriptions of general relativity and quantum mechanics under the same rubric. (We will discuss these theories in detail later on.) These efforts have focused on the task of organizing Nature’s data into a self-consistent assembly — like the ones and zeros of a digital picture. The problem is that this inductive approach does not encourage, let alone require, the discovery of a conceptual portal.

Even if physicists were to one day conclude that their assembly was mathematically correct, it would not actually increase our ability to truly comprehend Nature unless it was translated into some sort of picture. Therefore, since it is really the picture that we are after, maybe it is time for us to consider whether or not our efforts will bear more fruit under a different approach. Specifically, to maximize our chances of completing our goal of intuitively grasping Nature’s complete form, maybe we should follow the lead of young Einstein and return to a deductive conceptual approach. Perhaps it is time for us to place our focus on constructing a richer map of physical reality. If we don’t, then all of Nature’s elaborate arrangements may very well remain forever hidden in obscure mathematics and impenetrable sequences of data. [2]

As I sat at the fountain surrounded by melodic purls and dancing shadows, these thoughts echoed through my mind. It suddenly became clear to me that what we need is a new picture of Nature — one capable of depicting its deepest symmetries and beauty. We need a map that can introduce our senses to what lies beyond their experiences. We need an insight that transforms our intuition and open our eyes to the breathtaking simplicity that underlies the world we know and the world of bewildering mysteries. It must unify everything around us and make sense of it all. But how do we attain such a map? How do we lift that veil of ignorance?

Let’s begin our search for the answer to that question by examining the history of the map we have inherited.


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